England face Argentina at the World Cup on Saturday with a quarter-final place at stake – and, four years after being knocked out in the group stage, the official line from the England camp in Japan is clear: take nothing for granted.
England’s World Cup tilt has so far resembled an old-school computer game. A breeze through the first two levels, a tougher one next, a harder one still beyond.
Fight through all seven in seven weeks and the greatest prize in the sport will be theirs, but no-one in the camp is daring – publicly at least – to look any further than Argentina.
If that is a sensible PR strategy, it doesn’t necessarily match that of their support. England have not lost to Argentina in a decade. The Pumas were on a run of 10 consecutive defeats – the worst trot in their illustrious history – before last week’s win over Tonga.
Beat Mario Ledesma’s men once again here in Tokyo on Saturday afternoon and England will have qualified for the quarter-finals.
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“Argentina are a very passionate nation, and they play with their hearts on their sleeves,” England skipper Owen Farrell told BBC 5 Live.
“They have a lot of emotion, they’re renowned for their scrummaging and they have backs who can win the ball in the air and create things out of nothing. We’re going to have to be at the top of our game.
“They seem to play their best rugby at World Cups. The Jaguares playing so well in Super Rugby this year [the Buenos Aires-based side reached the final] has obviously put them in good stead coming into this one, and when the majority of your team play together week-in, week-out, it’s got to be a good thing.”
Head coach Eddie Jones has once again opted to pick Farrell at inside centre with his old friend George Ford starting at 10.
With the line-up the same as the one that took Ireland apart in their World Cup warm-up game, bar the addition of Anthony Watson on the wing, it is a settled look for England, Tom Curry and Sam Underhill once again paired in the back row as Jones looks for quick ball and a fast-tempo game.
England have never lost to Argentina at a World Cup, with Ben Youngs – who will become the third most capped England men’s player with his 92nd game at scrum-half – the try scorer when his side battled to an unconvincing 13-9 win in Dunedin eight years ago.
Jones said: “We believe that Ford and Farrell is the right way to go at the moment, but we’ve got other options, which is a great thing for us.
“You’ve got to be flexible in your plans. We had our World Cup squad pencilled in three years ago, and each week we’ve changed it and upgraded it, but we feel like we’ve got the squad of players here to represent England, and that they’re going to play with a lot of passion and pride and brutality.
“You play against Argentina and they base their game on the scrum. It’s the manhood of their approach – you’ve got to take them on up front, in the scrum, in the maul and at the ruck, that’s where it’s going to be won.
“I think they were unlucky to lose to France. The stats suggest they should have won the game, so we’ve the greatest respect for Argentina.
“We’ve worked hard on it and worked hard on creating training situations to handle situations. It’s like a tea bag – you don’t know how good it is until you put it in the water.”
Jones has opted for a front row of Joe Marler, Jamie George and Kyle Sinckler and a second row combination of Saracens duo Maro Itoje and George Kruis for a match Argentina replacement hooker Agustin Creevy has predicted will be “like a war”.
Winger Jack Nowell and prop Mako Vunipola have been selected on the replacements’ bench for the first time in the tournament after recovering from long-term injuries, with late squad bolter Lewis Ludlam also getting the nod.
The exclusion of Mark Wilson, one of England’s most impressive performers over the past 12 months, is the main surprise, meaning that if anything were to happen to Billy Vunipola, there is no specialist number eight to take his place.
Both Vunipola and Wilson made their England debuts against the Pumas, as did Curry, Underhill and winger Jonny May.
Jones is expecting Argentina to turn back the clock 12 years and revert to the gameplan that got Ledesma and his team-mates all the way to the last four of that tournament, where they were beaten by eventual world champions South Africa.
Jones said: “They’ve always had a strong forward pack, and they’ve changed their approach a little bit to be more of a phase team, and selecting a left-footer at 10 suggests they’re going to play a high-kicking game.
“They were brilliant in 2007. I can remember being with the South African team that met them in the semi-final, and they were a tough team to beat. But like any side they have weaknesses, and we intend to expose those weaknesses.”
Should England win, a victory over France in their final group game in a week’s team could set up a quarter-final with Wales in Oita, with three-time champions New Zealand the possible semi-final match-up.
Argentina must win to have any hope at all. It is why Ledesma is calling Saturday’s game his own side’s World Cup final. Game over is never far away when the stakes are this high.
‘A game England can lose’ – Analysis
Former England fly-half Paul Grayson
I don’t see Argentina coming up with a full-field gameplan like they did in 2015 which can catch England by surprise.
I think England have got a better 23 when they go head to head. It strikes me as a game England can lose, not Argentina can win.
That dynamic of how emotional the Argentines are… we see tears in the national anthem when they’re playing Tonga. They’re odds on to win but they’re still getting to that fever pitch, first 20 minutes game done and then that emotion tails away.
Against England, Agustin Creevy will become the most-capped Argentine player in history, you can see them wrapping that up as part of their emotional build-up to the game.
If England are undercooked and Argentina hit the heights they are capable of when they are emotionally at it, it could be tricky for England.
Both 23-man squads, match them up in a joined-up team and you are going to pick a lot of England players.
They need to be emotionally charged and ready to play, but there’s no doubt if England play anywhere near their best they should put Argentina away.
England: Daly; Watson, Tuilagi, Farrell, May; Ford, B Youngs; Marler, George, Sinckler, Itoje, Kruis, Curry, Underhill, B Vunipola.
Replacements: Cowan-Dickie, M Vunipola, Cole, Lawes, Ludlam, Heinz, Slade, Nowell.
Argentina: Boffelli; Moroni, Orlando, De La Fuente, Carreras; Urdapilleta, Cubelli; Chaparro, Montoya, Figallo, Pagadizabal, Lavanini, Matera, Kremer, Desio.
Replacements: Creevy, Vivas, Medrano, Alemanno, Lezana, Ezcurra, Mensa, Delguy.